Last edited on 6/Apr/2021
The Bible’s Answer
While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32–36, ESVUK)
This passage is a common Scripture in the Bible that opponents of Christianity often cite to support their view that God is not just in the Old Testament and that it contradicts the Christian view of him. Others, who may not necessarily be opponents to Christianity, may simply be troubled by this passage, as it may contradict what they once thought about God’s nature. Why would God, who is loving and merciful (Psalm 145:8), command the Israelites to stone a man to death for simply gathering sticks on the Sabbath day? Isn’t that a little excessive?
Context of the Passage
While it’s understandable to think that way at first glance, we need to take the context into account to truly understand the passage. Immediately before this passage, God gave the children of Israel commandments concerning unintentional and intentional sins (Numbers 15:22–31). If the people as a whole, along with any foreigners dwelling with them, sinned unintentionally or by mistake, then they could present the priest the required offerings for sin, and he would make atonement for all the people, and God would forgive them (Numbers 15:22–26). If just one person, including foreigners, sinned unintentionally, they could likewise present the required offering to the priest for forgiveness (Numbers 15:27–29). However, if a person sinned intentionally or knowingly, they were to be cut off from the people:
But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him. (Numbers 15:30–31)
While unintentional sins could be atoned for, intentional sins could not. After the man in the passage of interest was caught breaking God’s Law by working during the Sabbath day, Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites did not immediately put him to death, but rather showed obedience to God by waiting for his instruction on what should be done to him. Since the man had committed this sin immediately after God had just warned his people about the consequences for sinning intentionally, God deemed him worthy of being put to death, since such an act showed contempt for his Word and was blasphemous. In addition, we know from God’s decision that he hadn’t just sinned unintentionally, since if he really did he could have made an offering for atonement. God’s judgement here served as a warning to all the people so that they would not show contempt to his commandments.
God Gave His People Fair Warning
Furthermore, God repeatedly stated the importance of upholding the Sabbath to his people, as well as the punishment for doing any work on it.
You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 For six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. (Exodus 31:14–15)
For six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. (Exodus 35:2)
God had given his people fair warning that breaking the Sabbath incurred the death penalty, and the man who broke the Sabbath did so immediately after God had just warned his people about sinning intentionally. Such an act was blasphemous and showed contempt for his Word and Law, and that was why God put him to death, and was just for doing so.
What a blessing it is that even though we ourselves deserve to die and pay for our sins for all eternity, Jesus Christ took all the sins of the world upon himself and died in our place on the cross, so that everyone who believes in him as their only Saviour who rose again from the dead on the third day receives the forgiveness of sins and eternal life with him (John 1:29; 1 John 5:11–13).